Wednesday, August 29, 2007

PBP - The ride

Much has been written (and will be written) about the tough conditions on the 2007 edition of Paris-Brest-Paris. The old-timers I met at the Randonneurs Mondiaux meeting after PBP called it the worst conditions since 1956. Others thought 1987 was worse, but the bottom line is that the rain and wind made this a tougher than usual PBP. The non-finish rate - for SIR, for RUSA, and for all riders - was quite high - probably in the 30% range all around.

Under the conditions, some great stories of perseverance emerged. Riders fought through sickness, mechanical problems, exhaustion, etc to complete the ride - some even soldiering to the finish long after time had run out for an official finish. Mine is not one of these stories. I had a great time and a great ride. I felt well prepared and well rested. Although I didn't train for strength and speed, I rode an awful lot of miles this year, including two long brevets of 1000 kilometers. In addition, the experience of two prior PBPs helped me plan how to approach the ride. And I had the company of riding companions Peter McKay, Greg Cox, and Bill Dussler. This was our third PBP together.

Not a fast rider, my time goal was simply to finish. (I carried Steve Hameister's name plate and some of his ashes with me. Although I did not need the extra incentive, I wanted to give those mementos a Paris-Brest-Paris finish as well.) My overall goal was to enjoy the ride. From my previous trips, I expected to enjoy the company of friends, the international camaraderie of my fellow riders, and the great support from the ACP and the people of Normandy and Brittany. In these I was not at all disappointed. Maybe I even got a perverse pleasure out of facing the challenges of the windy, rainy conditions.

Luck plays a role in these things, of course, and mine held throughout the ride. Unlike some other riders, my bike and all my luggage arrived on time and intact. Nagging foot and ankle problems caused some pain, but did not impede progress. Although mechanical problems did not stay away completely, they did not present any show-stopping issues. My biggest weather fear - hot weather for which I had done little training - did not materialize.

Although three PBPs do not create a huge sample size, I enjoyed some personal bests:
  • Most sleep on a PBP - 10+ hours.
  • Most nights in a bed - 3 (more on this outrageous luxury below).
  • Most ham sandwiches - I lost count, but this readily available and quick control staple helped me stay fueled throughout the ride, along with
  • Most chocolate croissants consumed - at some patisseries and controls, I was eating them two at a time
  • Most pins distributed - Bill Dussler created some wonderful SIR/PBP 2007 pins. Offering these to control volunteers, fellow riders, and the supportive children and adults along the road brought plenty of smiles in return.
  • Lightest load on the bike - although I saw many riders with less, my load of supplies, spares, tools, clothes, and food was the lightest of my three trips (see posting below for more details).
  • Most beer consumed - three 0.25cl beers, one before each bedtime. Not quite the consumption of the local riders, but a great way to relax and fall asleep.

After checking and rechecking the forecast and observing the sky on Monday, we resigned ourselves to a rainy beginning to PBP. From past experience and current estimates of the number of riders, we knew that the 90 hour start would be a mob scene and would involve a lot of standing around. Although 9:30 was the nominal start time for this largest group of riders, the ACP planned to send the riders out in waves. As president of Randonneurs USA, I had a VIP pass that would have allowed me to move to the front of the line for the first start wave. Instead, I joined a fairly large contingent of SIR riders bunched up in the circle a bit before 8PM for what would be marked as the 10:10PM wave (although the start signal for this group was not given until 10:20).

For fun, a couple of us bought cheap umbrellas to protect us from having to stand in the rain for hours. Happily there was no deluge, but when the rain started as we stood on the stadium track, our umbrellas went up to the the chuckles of our fellow riders.

The first 200km of the ride went by in a blur of taillights. Less than 20km from the start, I noticed a flat tire. After a brief foray into a very muddy field, I pushed the bike forward to a paved sidewalk in Jouars. I considered replacing the tire, but Peter suggested instead a boot cut from a piece of Tyvek that he carries. The boot would last another 1200km to the finish. Our stop split us off from the rest of our group, including Greg and Bill. We chased along the country side, hopping from group to group in search of them. Bill would stay ahead of us all the way to our stop on Tuesday night; Greg followed another group of riders on a 15km detour and would not see us for another 1050km until Mortagne au Perche on Thursday night.

The bunching of riders in the 90 hour group creates large crowds at the refreshment control at Mortagne (140km) and the first real control at Villaines la Juhel (222km). We brought enough food that we could just stop for water at Mortagne. In Villaines, we stopped before the control at a patisserie known from prior PBPs - delicious pastries (pain au chocolat, of course) and quick service. Just before the control, we restocked from our bags at Dave Jordan's bag drop truck (ride "food" and a spare tube). At the control, we took care of our control cards, filled our water bottles, and moved quickly down the road. The relatively short time spent in Villaines moved us fairly far forward among the 90 hour riders.

As a Seattle randonneur, I've accumulated an awful lot of rainy kilometers over the years. The off-and-on rain on Tuesday remained well within the bounds of comfort for this wool-clad rider. The wind was less pleasant. We never really found a group of riders that fit comfortably with our riding style, so we pushed into the wind without rider shield for much of the distance.

One fun part of Tuesday was crossing paths multiple times with the motorcycle carrying our friend Gregg Bleakney, who was photographing riders for RUSA and SIR. He and his buddy Sebastian clearly enjoyed being among the riders and documenting their progress. In one small town, we stopped at a bar for some coffee (right) and spotted their motorcycle out front. Inside they had made friends with the staff and patrons, who then greeted us as riding heroes when we arrived.

We reached Loudeac around nightfall and pushed ahead toward our overnight stop in a nearby farmhouse rented by our friends Rick and Barbara Blacker. This turned out to be one of the great luxuries of this PBP. Twelve Seattle riders shared the two buildings, which had nice beds for all and three(!) separate showers.

Bill was there already when we arrived, but no sign of Greg or the others - Rick Blacker, Rick Haight, Joe Llona, the Jensen tandem, the Jameson tandem, or Lew Meyer. Later that evening, Rick Haight apparently rescued Greg from wandering around lost. After a delicious dinner, I slept for more than four hours - a real luxury.

Other than the headwinds, most of Wednesday was a nice day for a ride. A baker in the secret-control town of Corlay offered the most wonderful, flakiest, buttery-est pastries of our entire visit to France. Stoked with at least two of these, we headed out to Carhaix and Brest. Along the way we traveled over the Roc Trevezel, the "big climb" of PBP. At about 1250 feet or so, this pales in comparison to any climbs of the Alps or Pyrenees, or for that matter, to any of our pass climbs in Washington. Nonetheless, it can be a bit of a slog coming at 550km into the ride. This time, however, I felt great and I enjoyed every minute of the climb.

The route leaves Brest and the turn-around control by a different route than it enters. As a result, you don't get to see all the riders ahead and behind as you would on a true out-and-back. The routes do converge, however, before Sizun and we had the opportunity to see many of our friends as we returned. Lots of smiles and waves and cheers. Riders were enjoying the best weather of the event and the satisfaction of nearing the half-way point.

Sizun is a lovely town and it was filled with 90hour cyclists returning from Brest and 84hour cyclists on their way out. We hung out for a while to chat (and, of course, to eat). Steve & Peggy Rex were there; Will Roberts was there; Kevin Main was handing out ice cream cones (he wanted one, but could only find a multi-cone box).

The nice weather would not quite hold for the rest of the day. A couple hours before reaching the gite on the return, the rains returned - real gully-washers for part of the time. Peter and I were quite happy to see the gite again. Warm showers and another four hour sleep fortified us for what we suspected would be a long Thursday.

In the pre-dawn confusion of the secret control after Loudeac, Peter and I split up. (I thought I was chasing him back out on the course, but he was taking care of business at the stop). Eventually we regrouped and rode together to the controls at Tintineac and Fougeres. At Fougeres, we saw Amy Pieper and her friend Lola Jacobsen. They were out enjoying the French countryside and cheering on Amy's husband. Robin, an 84hour starter, arrived while we were there, having erased our 7 hour headstart. (He would later finish with Bob Brudvik from the 80 hour group).

Not far from Fougeres, my right shifter (relatively new Campy Record ~5000 miles) decided to abandon. I could shift to larger cogs, but not back down to smaller. (Occasionally I could coax a shift the other way, but mostly I just needed to pick a cog and leave it there). As a result, I rode the rest of the ride on what was basically a 3-speed. Happily, I had spent a lot of time over the past 13 months on a single-speed bike, so I wasn't overly intimidated by the prospect. Plus, I was still feeling pretty good.

The next stretch brought the fun of revisiting nice memories from prior PBPs. In the little town of La Tanniere, Paul Rogue and his friends and family quadrennially set up an oasis for PBP riders. He serves crepes and coffee (and offers sleeping and bathroom facilities). In thanks, all he asks is that the riders send him a post card from home. We spotted the postcard that Peter sent in 2003, with Mount Rainier rising above Peter's home neighborhood of West Seattle. Shortly after this we descend to the river town of Ambrieres, where we've stopped in past (warmer) PBPs for ice cream. This time we had coffee and found the answer to the age-old question - does dog drool smell better or worse than a randonneur? As we were getting ready to leave, the barmaid comes out with my headband, just retrieved from the resident dog's mouth. I wipe off the obvious slobber and give it a quick sniff. Can't tell that it's any worse, so on it goes.

Peter and I have approached each PBP with basically the same ride plan - spend Tuesday and Wednesday night in Loudeac and then push on to the finish. In 1999 and 2003, we ran out of gas at Mortagne au Perche and grabbed some unsatisfying sleep at the control. This year, I planned for this by reserving a hotel room in Mortagne, just in case the inevitable happened again. We picked up clean shorts and shirts from our drop bags in Villaines and rode to Mortagne. As expected, this turned into quite the long slog. For amusement, Peter gave me a running status on the steadily expanding hole in the back of my shorts. (Silver lining - I had the excuse just to throw them away at Mortagne and not carry them into the finish).

Although we weren't there long, maybe 2.5 hours total, the shower and bed refreshed us well. Our pre-dawn ride to the penultimate control at Dreux was still challenging, but we had the good company of Will Roberts for much of the way. Will has been a graduate student in Seattle and has ridden with SIR for the past few years; he's just moved back to his native England after graduation. Being a little sleepy, I talked incessantly to keep myself awake. Perhaps I should have offered Will my earplugs. On the way into Dreux I picked up speed and rode with some different folks, including a fellow from the Carolinas who thanked me later for riding with him. "You know those white lines on the side of the road?" he asked. "They were starting to open into chasms and I was afraid I'd fall in." Ah, the joys of randonneur hallucinations.

At Dreux, Bill Dussler decided to nap, but Peter and I smelled the barn and pushed hard over the last 70km, in the company of Will and another AUK rider and a few others. We arrived, happy, at the finish at around 11AM. Unofficially, my time was 84:50, remarkably consistent with the 85:42 of 1999 and the 84:29 of 2003. Although the times were similar, I think this was my best ride of the the three. This time, I felt stronger throughout the ride and better after the finish. Unlike 2003, I never tossed myself into a bed of thorns (see story here).

After a shower and some lunch, we returned to the finish to watch the remaining riders come in. It was inspiring and humbling to watch those riders who had persevered through much adversity arrive happy and exhausted at the finish, some with evident makeshift repairs to their bikes or their bodies. Even after the time required for an official finish, riders continued to arrive.


pat r said...

Fantastic ride Mark and an excellent recap for us sitting at home this year. I could almost feel myself rising up from the deepest recesses of the couch and wishing I was there with you in the rain, cold and wind. Thanks for doing such a great job on organizing SIR and RUSA this past year! 2011 doesn't seem so far off!
All the best,

Pat Rodden

Jim said...

Mark, Congrats on a great ride, and a great account. Just found your blog. Just turned 50 and am a rookie Randonuer. Finished first 200k this past June. Hoping for one more this year. Enjoying all your past posts, sounds like quite a fine group in SIR. Checkout, a new S. Utah breveet org. Also you can see my recumbent adventures on my blog, too. Jim, riding recumbent in Layton, Utah.

Felkerino said...

Nice ride, and great story. I too found the rain pretty tolerable, save for the heavy stuff on Wednesday evening headed into Loudeac.

You guys managed to successfully ignore the "don't leave the course" rule with your clubhouse. Well done. Maybe a RUSA hotel next time?

Ed Felker